There is, it turns out, a fair amount of confusion in this industry about some of the terms used by different institutions and for different programmes or qualifications, and since we use more than one term at Jakarta Language Academy, I thought it would be appropriate to clarify some of the references here.
The main terms that people find confusing are TESOL, TEFL, TESL and CELTA. Since CELTA is a unique case, I’ll leave that to the end and address the others first.
The Genuine Differences between TEFL and TESL
The main distinction that needs to be drawn is between TEFL and TESL, as these are, academically speaking, distinct fields of study. TEFL refers to Teaching English as a Foreign Language and TESL refers to Teaching English as a Second Language. To people new to the field, it might not be instantly clear how these two terms differ, and this is further complicated by the fact that many training institutions do seem to use the terms fairly arbitrarily. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction.
EFL (English as a Foreign Language) is what most teach-abroad teachers are teaching most of the time. It is teaching English to students who are not surrounded by English and do not use it on a regular basis as a part of their daily activities or as an important part of their social or professional lives. ‘Foreign’ suggests that English is not a local language for these people, it is a language spoken outside of their locale. Because this is the most common setting for teach-abroad teachers, TEFL is probably the most commonly used of the terms in this post.
By contrast, ESL (English as a Second Language) describes quite a different environment. This is for students who were raised in households where English was not used as a first language and probably went to schools where English was not the language of instruction but who encounter English regularly in their community/environment and who would benefit from being able to use English as a part of their daily activities or professional or social lives. This environment usually develops where either there are a high number of foreigners visiting, such as popular tourist destinations, or where there are a number of different communities living in close proximity with different first languages. In both of these cases, English is adopted by the community in order to facilitate communication amongst different groups.
As you would imagine, EFL and ESL environments are quite different from the learners’ perspectives. In an EFL environment, students have very little contact with English outside of the classroom, and so can only really be expected to progress with the curriculum. Realistically, we do not expect EFL learners to become fluent to high levels unless they enrol in intensive extra-curricular learning programmes or take significant initiative to maximise their exposure and practise outside of the classroom. I have written before about the mathematics of this problem. In Indonesia, for example, many students study English twice a week for around 40 minutes per session, so about 80 minutes a week. Allowing for holidays, exam periods and other academic and non academic activities, there are about 38 effective weeks of learning in the year. This means that in one whole school year, a student studies English for about 50 hours if they keep good attendance. That’s basically a few days’ worth of study. On top of that, learning in 40 minute chunks with several days between each lesson does not make for good retention or momentum, and it is very germane to note that in EFL environments, the teachers’ own English ability is often questionable.
In an ESL environment, on the other hand, students have frequent and extensive contact with English outside of the classroom. It is probably on the television that they watch as well. As such, these students are going to learn at a much faster pace, and their existing levels when they enter a new class can be hard to determine, as they are often learning outside of the lesson in a very unstructured manner, just based on whatever they encounter day to day. This means that ES: students will often be far ahead of the curriculum posed for them, though there will also be things that they find challenging because they haven’t encountered them in the social environment. In these environments, teachers are generally of a higher standard where English ability is concerned, and the students’ motivation is usually much stronger as well, given that there are obvious concrete benefits to them learning English.
All of that said, TEFL and TESL make use of many of the exact sam teaching approaches and methodologies. Essentially, the techniques for teaching and learning are the same; what changes really are the details. That’s why a TEFL course and a TESL course will both look very similar in a lot of ways. What will be most notably different is what the trainees are prepared for. Classroom dynamics will be different, progress rates will be different, starting abilities will be different, student motivation and expectations will be different, ultimate outcomes will be different, and also the contexts for applying the language will be very different. All of these things are important for the teacher to be aware of, and as such, a course selling itself as TEFL or TESL should address these factors appropriately. Still, many institutions are unfortunately not very clear on this.
TESOL and Jakarta Language Academy
TESOL stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and is intended as an umbrella term for the whole industry. TEFL and TESL are two sub-categories of TESOL. As a result, TESOL has also become the most common generic term for these types of courses, replacing TEFL. Therefore, when a course sells itself as TESOL, it’s quite possible that the provider is simply using the common generic term and hasn’t paid much attention to the distinctions I have described above. Or it might mean that they focus more on the general principles of teaching language and do not spend much time on the specific learning environments that teachers might encounter.
At JLA, we tend to describe our courses as TEFL TESOL courses. There is a specific reason for this. The JLA Cert. TESOL was first designed in Indonesia specifically to address the challenges of teaching in the South East Asian context, which is widely an EFL environment. Therefore, the main focus of the programme is to prepare teachers to teach EFL students. However, we do have specific units on the course that look at the difference between EFL and ESL, and we try to point out throughout the programme when there would be significant differences between the two environments. Nevertheless, ESL is a secondary concern on the JLA course, and that is why we choose to refer to it as a TEFL TESOL programme: we discuss both EFL and ESL conditions (hence TESOL) but focus very heavily on teaching EFL students (hence TEFL).
What about CELTA?
It’s very common to see people on TESOL forums across the internet asking questions like, “Should I take a TESOL course or a CELTA course?”. This is technically an erroneous question, but also, on the other hand, valid. First of all, CELTA is a TESOL qualification, so there is no CELTA “or” TESOL. CELTA stands for Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults and is the brand name of the TESOL qualification owned by Cambridge. CELTA is simply the Cambridge certificate in TESOL, if you like. By comparison, Trinity College offers the Trinity Cert. TESOL, which is an equivalent qualification. These are both just brand-owned TESOL certificates. At JLA, we work with University of West London to offer a Cert. TESOL as well. All of these—CELTA, Trinity, UWL—are UK Level 5 National Qualifications in English language teaching.
That said, CLETA and Trinity are the two leading providers of TESOL in the world. That is because a) they come from well established institutions (Cambridge and Trinity College) that are recognised worldwide and have strong reputations in the education industry and because b) they have built very successful franchises licensing providers in many many countries throughout the world.
The first point is a strong positive. The TESOL industry is very poorly regulated, and any institution can claim to offer TESOL without any real requirements or standards being imposed upon them. Since there is no single, central accrediting authority, it can be very difficult to find a trustworthy provider for your TESOL programme. People opt for the CELTA or a Cert. TESOL because they know that the certificate will be recognised wherever they apply to work.
However, partly because of their status as leading brands and partly because of the inherent costs in the franchising model, the CELTA and Trinity Certificate are very expensive courses, costing upwards of $2,000 in some countries. For many this expense is simply implausible, but often people worry that anything other than a CELTA or Trinity Certificate is worthless and so either fork out the high fees or else give up entirely.
While finding a good TESOL course can be tricky, there are a few things to look out for. The CELTA and Trinity courses are both very similar in terms of structure, content, duration and standards, and if you can find a provider that offers a certificate matching or surpassing these standards—such as the JLA Cert. TESOL—then that certificate will be accepted just the same as the Cambridge or Trinity certificates. With that in mind, these are the standards that most employers are looking for:
1. Minimum of 120 hours in total
Both the Cambridge and Trinity courses are 120 hours, and anything less than this will be automatically valued as a lower standard.
2. Face-to-face Training
As the online TEFL industry continues to expand rapidly, more an more employers are losing faith in its standards and quality. As such, most employers want to see that your TEFL certificate includes at least some face-to-face training. Specific preferences vary, but many employers want to see at least 20 hours, and the Cambridge and Trinity courses each have 80 hours of face-to-face training.
3. Assessment with Pass/Fail Criteria
Employers are not interested in certificates that you basically just pay to receive. If there is no way of failing, then the programme is not reliable. Your certificate must be awarded only if you meet the passing criteria. Any course that sells itself as a guaranteed pass, you should ignore.
4. Classroom Experience
The best TESOL courses include real teaching experience as a part of the the programme. CELTA and Trinity both offer this in abundance; each trainee gets about 8 hours of teaching practise with real students in real classrooms during the training programme. Employers want to know that you have at least set foot in a classroom as a part of your training and not just sat around talking or reading about teaching.
Personally, I consider this the least important of the criteria, but many employers—not to mention universities, if you are hoping to continue study to a higher level of certification—will require that your certificate have genuine accreditation. Given the hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of certificates out there, genuine accreditation is quite rare. You’ll be looking for certificates that are directly accredited (a national qualification) or issued by nationally accredited institutions (formally accredited universities). There is technically no such thing as an “Internationally Accredited” TESOL certificate, since there are no international organisations issuing them—they are all accredited by the government of a country—but most national qualifications will be internationally recognised.